A Missionary’s Master’s Degree in Buddhism
Fr. Daniele Mazza, PIME, receives his Master’s Degree in Buddhism from Mahachulalongkorn University.
Fr. Daniele is the first missionary to ever do so.
“Too often people of different religions have too little time for genuine dialogue,” but “studying for two years with monks gave me a chance to ask serious questions without fear of being misunderstood. Those who are in contact with Buddhism should not emphasize theory or theoretical concepts, but rather communicating the Christian experience . . . and the ways to reach it.” Interfaith dialogue is fundamental to the life of the Church in Thailand. The challenges of the future include the call “to grow freer from influences and be more and more the clear voice and image of her Lord.”
When, some years ago, the PIME missionaries in Thailand decided to have a priest devoted full-time to interfaith dialogue, Fr. Daniele immediately offered himself to the cause. The clergyman asked to enroll in a Master’s Degree program in Buddhism at the Mahachulalongkorn University, an institution run by the Thai Sangha, the country’s Buddhist order, which educates more than 27,000 monks (and a few hundred lay- people) from across Thailand and neighboring countries like Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, China, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, India, etc. “It was an amazing experience, which left a big impression on me,” Fr. Daniele said.
At the end of their course, Fr. Daniele took a group of monks to his parish to witness the works that he did as a Catholic.
One of the stops that they made was to the Angel’s Home care center.
One of the things the missionary came away with, was a deep friendship with people he met along the way, crucial for his work of interfaith dialogue. “Too often people of different religions have too little time to talk openly with each other. The context and limitations of a conference prevent us from developing certain topics or impose certain limits on speech and communication. Studying for two years with Buddhist monks gave me the chance and the time to develop deep bonds of appreciation. In the end, my companions and I felt we were free to ask even very personal, touchy questions without fear of being misunderstood. I have really experienced what Pope Francis calls the ‘dialogue of friendship’, which requires time and patience.”
Another important experience for Fr. Daniele was vipaśyanā meditation, which he practiced in the woods on two occasions, for 15 days each. This religious practice is very important in Buddhism, but difficult and very “risky” for a Christian. “Quite a few priests and missionaries have abandoned the priesthood and the Christian faith after these experiences. I tried to go through it with profound sincerity and humility,” the priest reveals.
This experience in meditation taught Fr. Daniele something useful for his missionary life: “Practicing Buddhist doctrine through meditation has made me go further, not only in my way of communicating my experience to others, but also in how to get others to undergo it.”
When asked about the methods of effective dialogue with Buddhists, the PIME missionary highlighted two possible paths. The first concerns content. “Those who are in contact with Buddhism should not emphasize theory or theoretical concepts, but rather communicating the Christian experience (which includes so many sub-experiences) and the ways to reach it.” Fr. Daniele has personally experienced this method successfully. During his studies, he was asked to teach to the monks a course on Christianity for one semester in the Comparative Religions department.
“At the end of the course, I took the monks to my parish for a ‘taste’ of the Christian experience. I took them to a Center for disabled children, to slums to visit the old and the sick, to Sunday Mass to share in the Word of God.” Speaking of this, the monks greatly appreciated listening to the experience of another, given as a gift. “We do not share experiences,” the monks told Fr. Daniele. Regarding Sunday Mass, they appreciated the sense of family in the small community of the Bangkok Parish, while visiting the sick and the elderly helped them understand why Jesus sought people and attended to their needs.
The second path to dialogue Fr. Daniele mentioned regards the mode of dialogue. “The success or failure of dialogue depends greatly on the context we can create between us and the method used. At present, we use the instrument of conferences and symposiums but, as I have said, they are too short. Is it possible to generate longer experiences?”
Fr. Daniele poses with other recipients, the university most commonly educates monks
Interfaith dialogue is a fundamental part of the life of the Catholic Church in Thailand, a country in which different ethnic groups and cultures coexist. Catholic communities in the North are characterized by the many conversions among the tribal people there. According to Fr. Daniele, “the challenge is to make sure that the various tribes do not turn inward, setting up their own church, but form instead a single -family transcending cultural differences. [Another challenge is to] preserve the richness of their cultures, without focusing solely on their past, but also without rejecting their roots”. However, in the Bangkok area, the challenge is to revitalize the work of evangelization in order to reach all those living on the geographical and social periphery, those who are kept on the margins by the life of a megalopolis.
Lastly, with respect to the future challenges of the Catholic Church, Fr. Daniele noted that: “In recent years, the Thai government has been giving great importance to all religions in unprecedented ways. The government believes that religions play a key role in shaping minds and contributing to national unity. Such openness by the authorities is one of the signs of the times that the Thai Church is trying to meet responsibly. This is a delicate and difficult task to which the Church is called upon in order to make her humble contribution, and in which she is called to grow freer from influences and be a clearer voice and image of her Lord.”